About Liu Xiaobo A response to some North American critics

A friend circulated today [this blog post->http://prop-press.typepad.com/blog/2010/10/on-the-nobel-peace-prize-2010.html whose purpose is to dissuade the American Left from voicing support for Liu Xiaobo’s receipt of the Nobel Prize. The author is critical of the Charter 08 document that got Liu imprisoned last year, calling it « ahistorical » and « naive. » It is said to be « far too general » in its propositions and above all lacking in the « more promising analyses of global labor. »

I’m sure that within the context of the United States, some of the support voiced for Liu Xiaobo has been extremely self-serving. Although I do not share the author’s critique of generality and history (nor the overall tone of the article), the concluding point about labor is not to be overlooked. Not only could lead it to a way out the Imperial Nationalism circulating among US leftists, it would also force us to look beyond the categories of sovereignty and civilizational difference in our approach to the violence of financial capitalism.

In personal conversation with Liu at the beginning of the 1990s, when I was conducting field interviews with him for my dissertation, I voiced some of the same concerns to him, directly. In an essay on Liu based on my dissertation (to which those interviews contributed) that I published a decade ago ([http://muse.jhu.edu/login?uri=/journals/positions/v010/10.2solomon.html->http://muse.jhu.edu/login?uri=/journals/positions/v010/10.2solomon.html), I argued that Liu’s positions before and after the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre amounted to a sustained critique of the apparatus of sovereignty. Strategic shifts between philosophical dissidence and political dissidence produced in the Liu of that era a nuanced and highly mobile form of critique (critical of both « China » and « the West » at the same time); I called this « Liu Xiaobo’s internal dialectic of exilic dissidence against the Chinese exception [of sovereignty. » It should be noted that at the time, Liu was widely dismissed both by Chinese intellectuals–especially those in the generation after Liu who were pursuing their paths to power through training in North American universities–as well as by the self-anointed custodians of the Chinese exception in the West, the so-called « China hands » (whose only real goal, in fact, was to maintain the superiority of the Western exception).

At the end of that article, I predicted the path of internal exile and critique of sovereignty chosen by Liu would inevitably lead to his increasing occlusion in the simulacrum of representational politics between East and West, as his room for maneuver became increasingly limited to political dissidence (at the expense of any strategic displacement by philosophical dissidence which has been at the core of his practice since the 1980s). Not surprisingly, this is what has actually transpired. It was also to be expected that many of the intellectuals in the East and West who had formerly been joined in their dismissal of Liu now divided into antagonistic camps, like respective cheering sections for the particular and the universal.

This is not the place to review the critique of universalism and particularism. Suffice it to say, however, that the most persistent manifestation of the complicity between the two in the modern period consistently concerns the legacy of anthropological difference inherited from colonialism (not just “racism” but also the much broader idea that human populations can be understood according to a taxonomic scheme analogically based on biology). Today, the system of anthropological difference is the organizing principle not just of the Chinese state, but of all States in their relation to migratory labor.

There is no question in my mind that the Nobel Prize is effectively a « state apparatus » in the sense described by Louis Althusser. Unlike the Chinese government, however, I do not believe that the state to which the Nobel Prize corresponds can be neatly reduced to the actual state of Norway. The Nobel Prize, rather, should be seen as another one of those essentially private institutions, like the London Court of International Arbitration, that nevertheless exercise a constraining influence upon global society, yet substitute for the lack of a truly global civil space–and in that sense may even prevent the latter’s development. The Nobel Prize, in other words, can be seen as a « state apparatus » in relation to the emerging « global-State-without-society » described by Jacques Bidet and others. I am suggesting it should be seen as a device that is useful to that form of social organization that has been most effective for capitalist relations–i.e., sovereignty–as sovereignty (and indeed capital) enters a period of chaotic transition.

As a State device, the Nobel Prize obviously cannot be expected to offer an avenue of critique against forces such as anthropological difference that have become essential to State control of populations today. Yet does that mean that the significance the award to Liu bears for a potential politics in China and on its global borders (in Milan, in New York, in Shanghai) has no positive meaning? I truly do not think so. The very “generality” of the rights espoused by Liu and the authors of Charter 08, a generality that is criticized by the author of the blog cited above, functions to my mind in the same positive way described by Giorgio Agamben in his essay on Tiananmen. This generality permits both a rejection of the State and an embrace of the multitude of potential politics. (What remains unclear is the relation between generality and the universality that is also written into Charter 08, but that is the subject for another analysis.)

The real naivete and ahistoricism, to reverse the charges voiced by the author of that blog, would be to imagine that the struggles of labor and migratory populations in (and out of) China could advance, beyond the assertion of claims and benefits, to the valorization of the common without passing through the circuits of political dissidence—admittedly imperfect and compromised—practiced by Liu and others against the Total Surveillance State. I don’t see this as an either/or choice, since multiple forms of creative resistance are precisely what needs to be kept alive against the homosocial logic of the State.

It would be a strategic mistake to overlook the ways in which the Total Surveillance State is becoming more and more deeply integrated, largely through logistical and informational technologies associated with financial capital, across apparently antagonistic regional divisions such as North America and China. Yet we are still very very far from realizing non-Statist (i.e., multitudinal) networks across these very same lines. Much talk has been made of how the award will encourage other dissidents in China. Perhaps. But just as possible, it could also serve to strengthen the hand of dissidents everywhere against the rule of financial capitalism, especially given the dominant role being assumed by the Chinese capital. Of course, it is up to us to wrest the meaning of this Nobel Prize out of the hands of Statist logic and reappropriate it for the multitude, against the Total Surveillance State whereever it is located. In order to do that, courageous dissidents like Liu Xiaobo are going to be necessary, aren’t they?!

Taipei National University of the Arts / Taipei, Taiwan, October 13, 2010.

Solomon Jon

Maître de conférences à Shanghai Jiaotong University. Il est le traducteur en chinois de La Communauté désœuvrée de Jean-Luc Nancy et le co-éditeur de Translation, Biopolitics, Colonial Difference (Hong Kong University Press, 2006). Il est membre du comité de rédaction de plusieurs revues, dont Multitudes et Traces (États-Unis, Japon, Chine, Corée).